Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Festival fun part two

Jaipur is soft and balmy compared to Delhi's flinty, radiant cold. All those who've made the trip, 250-odd kilometres away and five hours by car, seven hours by bus, and about a day by plane, have cast off their city aggression and are seen throwing back drinks or tea at
Flow cafe/bar with abandon.

Day three was a late start, and I missed seeing a session on Bin Laden featuring Steve Coll, author of Ghost Wars and The Bin Ladens. But I did make it to a session called In A Tough Neighbourhood, which I thought would feature writers from troubled parts of the subcontinent but in fact had a far more political bent with Pakistani political activist Asma Jahangir and former Indian foreign minister Shyam Saran joining authors on stage. The discussion was one of many that took the festival beyond books and into the realms of debate starring top minds.

Asma Jahangir spoke eloquently about the lack of freedoms in Pakistan; all agreed that the kind of debate taking place here in India, would be unthinkable in Pakistan, in Sri Lanka, in Nepal, or Burma (Myanmar to my non Australian and British readers). But at the same time, Shyam Saran was forced to defend India's position, with the regional giant not always moving to sever ties with neighbours where democracy is suppressed, or human rights are threatened.

"We actively supported Aung Sung Suu Kyi's democratic movement for ten years and the result was we were actively marginalised by the military rulers. Should India actively engage with the current forces to try to effect change? It's not a point between supporting and not supporting democracy, it's how to best effect change. The situation for diplomats is far more complex than people think," he said.

Next up was Migrant Words, starring Hanif Kureishi (The Buddha of Surburbia) and a trio of young, attractive female writers: Sadia Shepard (who produced the film The September Issue, about Vogue magazine), poet and dancer Tishani Doshi and writer Tania James. Kureishi could barely contain his boredom and disdain for the facile topic and was the combative, surly member of the panel, while Shepard struggled valiantly to deflect his barbs and keep the thing together. I wandered off after about ten minutes; nothing they were saying was anything I hadn't heard before.

Historian Niall Ferguson, despite his dry economic subject matter, proved to be a highly entertaining guest. His session, The Ascent of Money was great fun; he spoke of how Indian companies are spreading their tentacles worldwide - even to his hometown in south Wales, where Tata has bought the local steelworks.

He also predicted that the major political flashpoint in coming years will continue to be in the Middle East. "Every morning I check online where the US navy has deployed seaborne aircraft carriers. If there are two or more in the Persian Gulf, I suggest you go long on oil. That's my bit of investment advice today."

The last session of the day was eye-openingly bad: India's top-selling author, Chetan Bhagat, who writes simple ditties on life on college campuses and in call centres, moderated a discussion by three young women who've all written about single girls in the city.

(From left: Chetan Bhagat, Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, Ira Trivedi, Anjum Hasan)

It turned out to be less a discussion and more of Chetan Bhagat appearing to be angling to get laid by one of the panellists, Ira Trivedi, a former Miss India contestant, who's written about sex and drugs in Delhi high society. She's a Columbia Business School graduate and quite possibly has a brain cell or two in her head, but this certainly was not on show at Diggi Palace. Her fellow panellist Anjum Hasan sat tersely on, arms folded, looking like she wanted to grab the closest mike stand and clobber both Trivedi and Bhagat with it.

Day four Another late start, this time on *cough* let's say health grounds.

I also spent much of the day nabbing interviewees in the corridors so didn't actually make it to as many sessions as I would have liked. I poked my head into historian Maya Jasanoff discussing her book Edge of Empire, about the British in India and Egypt. She was fascinating and engaging and later I ran into her as she juggled her two toddlers on the lawn and nearly asked for her autograph but desisted on the grounds of not wanting to be uncool.

Under the Kilt was a session, sponsored by Scottish Tourism, starring Scottish luminaries:Andrew O'Hagan, Niall Ferguson, Alexander McCall Smith and, natch, William Dalrymple. It was great fun but lacking in any conceivable literary angle, apart from the panellists. The authors seemed intent on disseminating Scottish stereotypes to a willing audience. "National self-deprecation is sometimes the best mark of a nation," said O'Hagan. "Taking yourself down is part of what it means to be a Scot."

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